Friday, May 9, 2014

Everyday lies

Well, I've had this blog set aside for a long time now.  It's high time I wrote something in it, and what's on my mind is this:

I work as a retail clerk.  It's not my dream job, not even remotely close.  I'm an extreme introvert, and socially awkward. 

There's a lot I don't get about people and their social rituals.  In particular:  "Hi, how are you today?"

Why does this bother me so much?  Because in almost every case, it's a lie.  These people are either complete strangers, or very, very casual acquaintances who do not interact with me, or even see me, outside of work.  They don't really care how I am, and I don't expect them to.  I don't hold it against them that they don't.  No, what grates on me is that they feel obliged to ask, and then I'm obliged to answer.  It's a charade, and nothing more.

Perhaps you think I'm just being curmudgeonly, or projecting some misanthropic part of myself on them.  If you want proof that the whole thing is a lie, ask yourself if they'd really want to know if things were going badly for you.  Ask yourself if YOU really want to know if the sales clerk is having a hard day, or maybe even a really rough week.  Do you want to know that he's struggling with anxiety or depression, or that his car broke down and he's preoccupied with how in the hell he's going to pay for that and still eat, or that he's had an argument with his wife and feels terrible?  I'm guessing you don't.  You simply expect the other half of the ritual:  something along the lines of "Good!" or "I'm doing great!" or "Not bad, how about you?"

Wonderful.  So now, not only are you lying to me, you're expecting me to lie to you in return!  Because unless I really am having a great day - and let's face it, I'm probably not, because I don't like my job and I'm not at home writing - that's exactly what my response is: a lie.  Probably the only thing worse is telling the truth, because that would expose your own lie, thereby alienating you and possibly losing a sale today or a customer permanently.

But surely it's a harmless lie, right?  It's only being polite, after all.  I'm not so certain that it is harmless, though.  Does accustoming ourselves to petty dishonesty rob us of an essential part of our humanity?  I think perhaps it does.  We've constructed a societal expectation that we should care deeply about each and every person we encounter.  If you don't, you're callous, insensitive, unconcerned about the plight of a fellow human being, and that's not acceptable, dammit!  It's a ludicrous expectation, nobody can possibly live up to it, so many of us feel compelled to fake it.  By deceiving your fellow man, you disrespect him.  By pretending your relationship to him is something other than what it really is, you're devaluing that relationship, whatever it is.  Still, you pretend you care more than you do, because you imagine that it makes people think you're a better person than you are.  There's a measure of self-deception in it too, and that's never healthy.

Why is it unacceptable to be strangers or distant acquaintances?  Why must we delude ourselves that our relationship is any more significant than that of two people conducting a business transaction?  There's nothing dishonorable in that, after all.  The fact that I don't take a deep interest in the details of your life doesn't make me a bad person, and your not taking that level of interest in my life doesn't make you one either.  We can be generally indifferent toward one another, we can not enjoy each other's company, we can even find each other grating or annoying, and still respect each other.  Hell, I could even find you thoroughly unlikable.  I don't need to volunteer that information to you; I'm not talking about THAT level of honesty.  Sometimes that old saw about not saying anything at all if you can't say something nice rings true.  We don't need to go out of our ways to alienate each other.  We still need each other on a certain level: you need some product that I'm selling, and I need your business for my livelihood.  Let's just not actively deceive one another, however good our intentions.  Wouldn't that make the world a better place? 

I'm not even saying that customers and clerks can't or shouldn't ever chat or develop a bond of any sort.  Compliment me on my amusing t-shirt.  I'll remark on your Walking Dead purse.  If you're buying cat food, maybe we'll talk cats for a few seconds.  You know, notice common interests.  If it's there, it'll happen; if not, no biggie.  Just don't force it with this "How are you?" stuff.  It demeans us both.

At the end of the whole interaction, we don't have to be best buds, or even like each other, to have general goodwill toward each other.  I can sincerely wish you a good day, too, because even if I don't like you, I probably don't hate you either.  I just don't want to hear about it.  And that's OK. 

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